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Ex-child abuse victim helping women heal
Sherna Alexander-Benjamin was around eight when she was raped for the first time by her father’s friend. He was in his 40s.
“And when he was done he said, ‘I love you’. He told me if I told anyone my stepmother would beat me.
“It was one of the most painful nights I ever experienced in my whole life,” Alexander-Benjamin, 42 now, recalled.
Today, she is founder of the Organisation for Abused and Battered Individuals (OABI) which helps victims of child abuse and domestic violence heal.
“If I could use the debris of my life to help one person or save one child what happened to me was not in vain. I realised the horrific abuse I suffered as a child was not something God approved of but which he allowed so I could use my voice to make people aware how sexual abuse damages a child,” she says.
OABI launched its Victim Advocacy Service Centre and office at 43 Bellsmythe Street, Curepe, in last February and between then and now, 65 victims of domestic violence have come forward for help.
Alexander-Benjamin said the centre was kept busy as there was a lot of child sexual abuse going on in T&T and an increasing amount of domestic violence.
Recalling the first time she was raped, she said the physical pain was so excruciating, she was afraid to urinate, have a bowel movement or even bathe. Her father’s friend had been interfering with her since she was six. “He would come to the house and with a child’s innocence and trust, I would jump on him to play with him.
“The first time he touched me I froze. I didn’t know how to react or what to say,” she recalled.
When her father died the man moved into the Calcutta Street, St James’ house where she lived with her stepmother, brother and another relative. He raped her repeatedly until she was around 15.
“If my stepmother knew, she said nothing. After my father died the man began helping her financially and otherwise.”
Alexander-Benjamin said she and her brother were beaten regularly and severely by her stepmother and she was terrified to say anything.
“One time she beat my brother so badly he could not lie down to sleep. He was falling asleep standing up and I was holding on to his legs so he would not fall.
“Once he ran away and spent a week in the bush in Fort George. The police brought him back and he ran away again.
“Our stepmother would hold back food from us and we would go to bed hungry. We had to steal food and carry it into the bathroom to eat it.”
Alexander-Benjamin said as a teenager she became very promiscuous and had many backyard abortions.
“I had the first around 18. I was working in a restaurant by then and paying for them,” she said.
A graduate of St James’ Secondary, she said she went on to work as an assistant with psychiatrist, Dr Ronald John, and started attending church. Her stepmother died and she said she believed the man who abused her was now in a home for the elderly.
“I started to get a sense of healing and I got married. But I had problems with my relationship because I associated love with abuse. One night I bared my soul to God and begged him to heal me.”
Alexander said her prayer was answered and in 2008, she founded OBAI. ”I was alone when I formed it,” she said.
“By the time it was launched in 2011, we had over 200 members and the support of the police, Rape Crisis Centre, doctors, the Institute of Gender Development Studies at URI and so many others.”
Until February this year when they opened their centre, OBAI had been functioning out of a living room in St Augustine.
“We network with organisations, host training workshops for women, do community interventions, counsel victims and guide them to shelters. We attend consultations and make our voices be heard, making recommendations and lobbying for reforms on gender issues.
“One of our members, Crystal Murray, a principal, tutors women for free who want to go back to school,” she said.
Alexander-Benjamin’s work in this field is so respected, she was given a national award in 2014 and the World Bank asked OBAI to assist in compiling a 2016 report on women’s business and the law. She pleaded with citizens to be a little more emphatic and less judgmental towards young girls, and even full women, who may appear promiscuous.
“When you label them as bad women remember, most times, there is always a root cause,” she said.